Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Random Thoughts by Chris Corcoran

Chris Corcoran is a teacher-turned-comedian and children's television presenter. If you are very young (in which case, why are you reading this blog?) you may have seen him on CBeebies Doodle Do. If you're a bit older, you might have seen him co-presenting The Rhod Gilbert Show. That's quite a CV he's got.

So I'm thinking: "This bloke should be funny. He's written a book about random stories he thinks are funny and entertaining for Quick Reads. Funny AND short. Just what I need at this stage for a book a week in 2010."

Each chapter finds Chris recounting an episode in his life that amused him, that he felt he should share with us. 'At the absolute worst, you'll have bought an ideal fix for a wobbly coffee table. And at best, you might laugh out loud on the train.'

At his best, the 'Radio Ga Ga' chapter evokes memories of the school disco, crap songs, youthful inebriation, and child-like priorities. 'Dragon Cabs' and 'Up in London' poke a gentle stick in the side of the Welsh and those from the Valleys (he grew up in Pontypridd, so it's allowed).

At worst, we have a pointless musing in the chapter on 'Health Food Shops'. And the 'I Love Sian Lloyd' chapter should never have made it into print.

Some gentle humour, but overall a bit hit and miss.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns

What do you lose when you read a book solely on the Kindle? That's a question I've found myself considering while writing this review.

I started out thinking this was a fictional cross between an adventurer's story and anthropologist's study: parallel tales of the author, Warwick Cairns, who befriends an elderly adventurer, Wilfred Thesiger, who inspires him to retrace his steps across Africa exploring the area around the Awash River in Ethiopia.

Cairns switches between the two journeys: that of himself and some friends, as they travel by bus, car and camel, helped by Thesiger's adopted sons, to visit the old man in his village home; and that of Thesiger, in 1933, travelling on foot through some of the most dangerous territory in Africa, rife with murderous tribal rivalries.

It's a riveting read, with some nicely juxtaposed observations about how modern life is rather rubbish; even when it's tough walking through a desert. The author occasionally lapses into tirades against what he perceives to be the ills of contemporary society. I take particular issue with the dishwasher example. My life would be hell without one. And my hands wouldn't be quite so soft.

Now, returning to my opening question. In Praise of Savagery (currently available as a 49p e-book) is published by The Friday Project, and their publisher, Scott Pack, plugged the final day of it's availability as a free download at the recent FutureBook conference. Being a bit of a tight wad, I downloaded it there and then.

I had no idea what it was about. I hadn't heard of the author. I didn't know whether it was fiction, illustrated or non-fiction. I wasn't sure what the cover looked like. I didn't know the pagination. It was truly an enjoyable voyage of discovery.

So when I came to write this review, I needed to research the book. Turns out it is non-fiction. It has 256 pages. And Warwick Cairns actually did travel with Wilfred Thesiger in Kenya. It's a rather unsettling feeling, getting all my assumptions wrong, but something I guess I'll need to live with as I continue reading on the Kindle.

And here's Scott Pack's explanation of the logic of offering an e-book for free before publishing the hard copy. Do you think it will work?

Monday, 20 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing by Jon Reed


I've written a review for the publishers. It appears on the back cover and inside near the front page. I've known Jon for years and was flattered when he sent me bound proofs to see what I thought. Of course I read it. Let's face it. It's the only chance of getting my name on a book.

Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing is a straight-forward guide to using the web and social media to raise the profile of your brand, business or profile. Despite the fact that I know Jon well and might be, well, a bit biased, I have to say - with hand on heart - this really is a cracking guide.

For those of you who know Jon, he has a dry sense of humour and you get a sense of this in the book. He has direct advice for those flummoxed by the thought of web marketing. Each chapter includes: why it may work for your business; what you need to consider; practical steps to get started; tips to stop you making mistakes; graphs, tables and illustrations to help you picture what needs to happen; and case studies to inspire you.

Drawing on several years running Reed Media, Small Business Studio, and Publishing Talk, Jon starts with a reality check: 'traditional marketing doesn't work: get over it!' He provides a quick overview of online marketing strategy. He then runs through the basics of getting online, the different media you can use, and a crash course on the main social media platforms.

It really is a brilliant beginners' guide to using the web to boost your business profile. And it's got my name on the back.

What more could you want?

Download a sample chapter
Buy the book
Follow Jon on Twitter
Hell, follow ME on Twitter!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Dear Granny Smith by Roy Mayall

Roy Mayall is a postie writing anonymously about the demise of the British postal system.

This is a slight book. A personal reflection on what it means to be a postman. He decries the corporate takeover and destruction of the Royal Mail. Through anecdotes of life on his round and recollections of former colleagues, Mayall paints a rose-tinted view of your postman.

That's the problem with this book. I'm not sure I agree. In my experience postmen are surly types who don't appear to enjoy their job. Who leave a trail of red plastic bands scattered in the front garden. And on the pavement. And who fold up 'Do Not Bend' items and stuff them through the letterbox.

Maybe it's because we live in London. That must have some occupational hazards. Unruly school children. Maniacal bus drivers. Dogs. People. Houses. Letter boxes.

If only we had a Roy Mayall on our road.

But hold on a minute. Towards the end of the book, it starts making sense. He stops harking back to the memories of yesteryear and starts to pin down exactly what's gone wrong. These final observations are at the heart of the debate of how much the Royal Mail is a national service and whether it can - or cannot - be privatised.

And if you are going to privatise, do you do it properly? Or make a total pig's ear of it? With wave after wave of incompetent management trying to apply different models of modernisation without involving those who deliver the service. You never know, they might even be able to help.

Oh and no prizes for spotting the crafty nom-de-plume.

If you want to read the real day-to-day story behind the book, check out the blog.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Hairy Plug Monster by Leighroy Marsh & Samuel Perry

I've got to admit, this is one of those cheating books. It's mega short and has helped me get back on track with my target of reading 52 books this year.

But this has extra appeal because there's a story behind how I came to get a copy.

I recently visited my friend Michele back in Cheshire. We were chewing the fat, late at night, wine in hand (no straw, since you ask) and she mentioned one of the parents from school who had written a book for his daughter. She told me how lovely it was. Next morning, as I was about to leave, she placed a copy in my hand.

And I can confirm, it is wonderful. There are beautiful illustrations to go with the story. It's all about the Hairy Plug Monster that lives in pipes under the bath. And Maya who gets to know him. A perfect combination of yuckiness, rhymes and a secret world right under your nose.

If you're struggling to find a gift for any child this Christmas, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It's charming.

Have a look at sample pages and illustrations here.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Snow by Maxence Fermine

Once again, a top recommendation from Scott Pack, Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollins, but better known as @meandmbigmouth - book reviewer extraordinaire. Much obliged sir.

If you like books called 'Snow' then the compelling and slightly claustrophobic title written by Orhan Pamuk is well worth a go. If you like Japanese novels , I'd recommend one of my favourite authors, Haruki Marukami. If you want something that's a little bit of both, then this is the title for you.

Snow tells the story of the son of a monk, Yuko Akita. He writes poems exclusively about snow. Each haiku is beautiful, and yet, they lack colour. When a famous court poet, Meiji, hears about the legendary snow poet, he visits, advising Yuko to go in search of the master of colour.

Snow chronicles Akita's journey in haiku-sized chapters. Haunting and mesmerising, it weaves a picture of the quest for purity, art and colour.

Written by Maxence Fermine, originally published in 1999 and translated by Chris Mulhern, Snow is a slight, wonderful float across haikus, Japan and snowy capped mountains.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson

I could tell you what this book is about, but if you've read my earlier reviews of part one, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the second in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, then you'll pretty much get the general vibe.

If not, here's a brief synopsis: crack investigative journalist finds himself defending crazy lone female punk researcher as she is set up as the culprit for several murders. Relentless scenes of extreme violence ensue with Lisbeth (punk researcher) managing to incur the wrath of dodgy eastern European and Swedish hoodlums galore as she travels around Sweden seeking revenge. Throw in a history lesson on the Swedish secret service and that pretty much sums it up.

The final part of the Millenium trilogy is not, in my humble opinion, as good as part two, The Girl Who Played with Fire. There's that great big chunk of history of the secret service to contend with. Persevere, as it picks up once you get through the early part of the book. Larsson ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels later on. Maybe he wanted to numb us senseless with the vagaries of the Swedish Civil Service so we'd appreciate the action more. We'll never know.

There are a few insights I've gained from the series that I'd like to share with you.

1. Coffee
According to Larsson Swedes like coffee. They drink it A LOT. In fact, I'm surprised they can function at all. Cafetiere after cafetiere gets downed at all times of the day and night. Apparently they sleep. Although I find that hard to believe. If I drank that much coffee, I'd be attached to a drip in hospital suffering from severe palpitations.

2. Misogyny
Apparently all women want to sleep with Mikael Blomqvist. He is irresistible. In a starting-to-go-to-seed-middle-aged-man sort of way. He can't help it. And it doesn't really mean anything. Plus, he's always good friends with them afterwards. So that makes it OK.

But Blomqvist is the nice guy on the block. And the rest? Well, I've never read about such a motley crew of men, with such a deep seated hatred and contempt for women. From Nazi-loving rapists to Russian spies. Utterly contemptible and stomach churning stuff. It does't paint a pretty picture of Scandinavian society.

But then I found out the series was meant to be called something along the lines of: 'Men who Hate Women' rather than 'Millenium'. Specifically because it WAS about misogyny. So Stieg, I forgive you. And I get it. Sort of. Shame the publishing house bottled it. (This last paragraph should do wonders for my SEO ratings.)

Something I discovered recently. The children's character written by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (who's a feisty ginger-haired girl with mis-matching stockings who is as strong as 10 men and won't take any sh*t from a grown-up) was an inspiration for Larsson when he was developing the character of Lisbeth Salander. That's ace.

So there you have it. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn

Following on from my recent dalliance with historical literature, here's the latest review.

Recommended by my friend after I enjoyed Philippa Gregory's Red and White Queens, The Queen of Subtleties is an altogether different proposition.

Suzannah Dunn juxtaposes two lives in the Royal household of Henry VIII: that of his confectioner, Lucy Cornwallis, and of his soon-to-be second wife, Anne Boleyn. The difference here is that Dunn deliberately uses a modern venacular with her characters.

The parallel drawn between unrequited and requited love is clever. But I couldn't help thinking that the link between the two women is tenuous and a little contrived. However, Dunn gets into her stride later in the book. I particularly liked the later life of Anne and her utter lack of self-awareness.

Different to Gregory, flashes of greatness, but a little underwhelming.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Scandinavian Fancy Dress: Discuss

God bless Twitter.

I put a late night shout-out for ideas on what to wear to our Scandinavian-themed Christmas party. And what do I get? A barrage of some fabulous, some downright disturbing ideas.

Bizarrely, Lady Gaga managed to make an appearance: with herring or with Danish bacon (yes, *that* dress from the music awards).

Then there was the dark Wallander and Larsson inspired 'bikers, goths, murders, misogyny, cigarettes, coffee, casual sex'.

One that made me smile was A-Ha and herring. Two of my all time favourite things.

Then there was the to-be-expected blonde/viking wench with a good smattering of vodka, beer and drunken flat-pack assembly.

The award for cutest, cleverest by far goes to Scandinavian children's tales: Pippa Longstocking, Moomintroll and Snork Maiden.

So what do you think? Do you have any other suggestions?

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

What happens to a girl who is told, from a young age, that she is the sole chance for her family to be restored to the throne?

Margaret Beaufort is heiress to the House of Lancaster. Married off at the age of twelve to the king's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, she soon bears a son, Henry, thus fulfilling her destiny. But the path to their divine right is strewn with the live bodies of their York cousins.

Firstly, Edward IV - with his beautiful wife Elizabeth Woodville - rule for many successful years, producing two sons. Then, when Edward dies, his brother Richard III takes control. Margaret wheels and deals through the years; forging and breaking alliances with friends and foes; raising a rebellion; wholly focused on her duty to ensure Henry ascends the throne.

The Red Queen is a parallel tale to Gregory's first in 'The Cousins' War' series, The White Queen. Where that was centred around the love between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville that drove the success of a dynasty, this is the story of a lonely, bitter woman, much maligned by those around her. Subject to religious fervour, she channels all that might break another woman into achieving her God-given goal.

I wasn't as enamoured with The Red Queen. That's not the fault of the writing, historical detail or plot: it's the characters. Margaret is just not as likeable as Edward or Elizabeth. It's hard to care what happens to her.

But perhaps that's the point. This wasn't the finest point in English history. And life was pretty brutal for an independently-minded woman.

A book a week in 2010: Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott

Do you watch TV with a netbook perched on your lap? Do you check your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and MySpace accounts on your smart phone? Do have over 700 'friends'? Do you multi-task like no other generation before?

You are probably part of 'The Net Generation.' And according to Don Tapscott, you are transforming the world as we know it.

Grown Up Digital is the follow up book the Growing Up Digital (see what he's done there?) It's based on a privately funded $4 million research project "The Net Generation: a Strategic Investigation" where the author and his team interviewed 10,000 people to understand 'a generation's experience with digital technology'.

Using this massive international research programme he subsequently combined qualitative feedback from Facebook and his own children to create a manual for understanding what 'digital natives' - or the 'Net Gen' - really think, feel and do.

Don't be put off by the research methods section at the front; that's just proof that this is proper academically rigorous stuff. Tapscott brings the data to life, making it relevant, personal and engaging.

He introduces you to the 'Net Gen'. He explains how they behave at work, in education, with family and friends. He describes how they challenge political and social norms, through their digitally enabled - and enlightened - networks. He describes a generation who are proactive and friendly activists, who give a damn about the world they live in (even though they are surgically attached to some form of technology).

If you're interested in (or scared of) how society, politics and culture are changing, you have to read this book.


Saturday, 6 November 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Have you ever been to a work event and received a goody bag? I did. And it was a bound proof of this book. All 800 odd pages of it. It appears I have a thing for VERY BIG BOOKS.

Perhaps not the best tactic when you're trying to read a book a week. But I can tell you this was a hell of a lot easier than Wolf Hall.

Justin Cronin is an American author and The Passage is his third novel.

It's a sprawling, epic chronicle of the end of the world as we know it, and the rebirth of something far more dark and terrifying.

The Passage follows the seemingly impoverished and anonymous life of Amy, a nine year old girl. But Amy is special. She holds the future of humanity inside her. When her mom abandons her at a convent, only Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto realises how special she is. But everything takes a surreal turn when she takes Amy to the zoo where two special agents come looking for her.

Throw in a dozen psychotic death rows prisoners; a secret military installation in Colorado; some genetic engineering to end them all; and you've essentially got the basic ingredients for a crazy, epic, horror murder mystery.

There's a lot to recommend this book. Ridley Scott has already bought the film rights. So it can't be bad, can it? Well, no, it's not bad. It is in fact gripping, disturbing and unsettling. It gave me nightmares. I couldn't stop thinking about it during the day. And yet, it was overlong, would have benefited from tighter editing, and felt as though it had been intended as a television series. There are plenty of sub-plots, characters and situations that were introduced, but never really explored.

The Passage will spook you out. It's worth persevering with it. And you'll wonder if there are plans for more.

Monday, 18 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

After struggling with Wolf Hall, a friend recommended Philippa Gregory as a lighter, more fluid and engaging read.

I've started with The White Queen. It's the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful, young widow from the House of Lancaster (symbol of the red rose), who climbs her way to the very top of political and royal power by marrying King Edward IV from the House of York (the white rose).

Aided by a pushy mother, she embeds her family in the power structures of the nation. As queen she gives birth to many children, including two young princes, who will never be safe from the war of the roses.

Sounds a bit like Dallas or Dynasty, doesn't it? That pretty much sums it up.

This is a great read. You are swept up in the passion of that first moment when Elizabeth meets King Richard. And that passion never abates, despite all the dalliances that a Tudor king indulges in.

Gregory wears her erudition lightly. This is at times an intense love story; at times a visceral picture of royal rivalries in English history.

Next stop in the saga is The Red Queen. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Silent State by Heather Brooke

At work I spend a fair amount of time talking to journalists and Heather Brooke is often mentioned as pioneering and inspirational in her quest for truth.

You may know her as the one who campaigned tirelessly to expose the scandal around MPs' expenses. It must have been difficult for her to stomach The Daily Telegraph buying the evidence on a disk to expose the abuse of the system.

MPs expenses get a mention in the book, but there's so much more. The Silent State is Brooke's diatribe against the lack of transparency in the British state. She takes us through numerous examples of how our much-celebrated democracy and sense of fair play is, in fact, a myth.

Chapter by chapter, my long-held view was undermined that we have a shining example of openness in politics and society. From the amount of money that's spent on PR and spin for government departments, the civil service and Quangos; to the use and abuse of research and statistics to justify policy.

Brooke rails at the system and blows open the flaws, so often avoided in the press, of our political system. The complete lack of accountability for civil servants - and their ability to destroy lives - makes for a particularly uncomfortable read.

Brooke pricks the reader's conscience by exposing how we are all culpable to a greater or lesser extent. I felt this acutely as she railed against ConstructionSkills, the industry body that receives government subsidy to promote training and skills, as it searched for a PR agency to promote what a good job it does (I work for Skillset, the equivalent body for the creative media industries). It also rang true when confronted with the publishing industry (I've spent 15+ years working in) that takes government (and therefore our data) to package and sell back to, yes, you guessed it, us.

There are too many examples to mention: each would make a pretty decent expose in themselves.

The book isn't perfect. Her tone and style may grate. You may feel that you are being shouted at. Brooke originally comes from the US and trained as a journalist there. Her views are clearly influenced by this and may not be to everyone's taste.

But you can't deny there is some truth in what she is saying: our democracy is not what it seems. We need to wake up and challenge this. It's our democratic right.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

My friend Paul recommended this. "It's gripping and quite short. You need to catch up on your reading, don't you?" He was right on all fronts.

Mohsin Hamid is a journalist and writer based in London. He was originally born in Pakistan, but studied and worked in the USA. You sense that his experience of straddling life in two different countries informs this powerful portrayal of clash of cultures.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a chance meeting between an unidentified westerner and an anonymous local in a Lahore cafe. What follows is the real-time unravelling of a tense game of cat and mouse.

Gradually, the local befriends the visitor, teasing out - through adroit questioning - certain details, so you realise all is not what you think. As you learn about this man's life; his experience at college in America; his life, love and losses; the tension creeps up on you as it becomes clear that all is not what it seems.

The background of the market contrasts the unfolding scene. During the day it's cacophonous and loud. You will it to be quiet so as not to distract from the conversational skirmish that is unfolding. But as day turns to night, the stalls pack up. A new crowd of shadowy figures creep into the darkening street. You long again for the noise and distraction to dissipate the almost unbearable tension.

I was gripped to the very end. This is a masterpiece. Read it.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

This book should come with a health warning:

1. Do not read on public transport
2. Carry tissues with you at all times
3. Avoid any other activity whilst reading

The Lovely Bones is a lovely book. Thoughtful, emotional and a beautiful depiction of life after a horrible death.

Susie Salmon is murdered by George Harvey, the strange neighbour who likes to build dolls houses. Her death rips the family apart.

But they are not alone. Susie continues to watch over them, following her family as they learn to cope with her death and unsolved murder. That's all I can tell you. You need to read the rest yourself.

Alice Sebold is a gifted writer with the ability to paint raw emotions through place, sight and sound. You'll float away with a beautiful description of everyday life. And then she hits you, with a sucker punch of intense horror, power and the dark side of humanity.

Before I finished the book, I overheard a heated debate in the kitchen at work. They were disagreeing on the strength of the ending. Needless to say, I left the room so as not to spoil the ending (which, by the way, made me cry. Again).

This is a wonderful book. Read it and weep.

Buy the book and watch the trailer (I haven't seen the film, so can't recommend it).

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize

'A superb epic work. Richly satisfying' Kate Mosse (that's the author, not the model)

'Remind me again: how did this win the Booker Prize?' Suzanne Kavanagh

Wolf Hall is an epic (650 page) tour de force (self-indulgent) piece of literary (at times incomprehensible) fiction. It charts the life and times - in minute detail - of Thomas Cromwell, confident and advisor to the Cardinals Wolsey and More, and latterly King Henry VIII.

Mantel charts the everyday life, politics and culture of the Tudor period with depth; weaving intricate description of place and people, humanising Cromwell with a multitude of domestic and family interactions.

There is no doubt that this is an incredibly well researched book. It took years to ensure that the fiction tied in with historical facts. This, for me is one of two things to admire. The other is how you come to understand and respect Cromwell as a man. Mantel provides an alternative view of some of the most powerful of people in English history.

Put simply, I really cared what happened to Cromwell in his personal and professional life. I felt pity for Henry as he struggled to judge those courtiers around him driven by self-service, power and greed, whilst dealing with his own fallibilities.

Now here comes the 'but', and it's a big one.

The changing narratives are, at times, simply impossible to keep track of. They often slip into a stream of consciousness of who-knows-who. A good two-thirds of the book is so confusing I had to re-read passages. Eventually, I gave up. I couldn't make head nor tail of who was saying what and when, so thought it best to get on with reading it and see what stuck.

This is a real shame. It detracted from the strengths of the book. And it made me feel stupid. Then annoyed. All this meant it took a bloody long time to read: months in fact. It became a chore, not a pleasure.

I can't help feeling that it could have been edited and sharpened to retain the literary gymnastics without losing the reader along the way. Like several smart people I've spoken to who also struggled with this book, I don't have a problem with challenging writing.

I'm at a loss as to how an award-winning title can leave me feeling this exhausted, cross and frustrated.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook

Adam Westbrook is in his own words "a multimedia storyteller, journalist, author and lecturer."

I watched as he gave an articulate and compelling presentation on a panel at the news:rewired conference in January.

He showed an audio slide show telling the story of John Hirst, a man who killed his landlady. It remains one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I've seen.

Audio Slideshow: Hirst v. UK from Adam Westbrook on Vimeo.

Adam made it seem as though anything is possible in multimedia. I wanted to know more, so followed him on Twitter, and discovered he self-publishes too. As a book publisher, this piqued my interest further. He produces e-books as well? So this is what a one-man publishing industry looks like.

I've bought two so far - both out of interest for work (I cover publishing and journalism for Skillset). The first - News Gathering for Hyperlocal Websites - is on my 'to blog' pile. The second - Next Generation Journalist - is covered here.

In Westbrook's view, a 'next generation journalist' is one who works alone or in collaboration. They are entrepreneurs. They won't sit about worrying where the next commission will come from. They get out there and make their own destiny.

In this world you build a portfolio career: spreading your risk across a variety of sectors, platforms and interests. You work with for- and not-for-profit organisations. You use the web to profile and market yourself to different clients and communities. You use words, sounds, images and video: whatever helps tell the story best for its audience.

Westbrook believes people are prepared to pay for services or information from someone with in-depth knowledge and curatorial skills. Chapter after chapter provides tips, ideas and inspiration for different ways to do this. This may involve aggregating content. It may include hyperlocal websites. You may choose a journalism niche or become an 'infopreneur' (don't groan, it really makes sense when you read it).

This book is totally refreshing. It's a handbook on how to make money from the skills and passion you have, and I loved it. It should be on the reading list of every journalism course in the country.

Buy Next Generation Journalist
Follow Adam on Twitter
Hear him lecture at Kingston University
See more of his work

Thursday, 30 September 2010

A book a week in 2010: 'The Dirt' by Motley Crue

Oh Lordy.

I was warned about this book. It was a title I selected at the Skillset Book Swap.

"You're not, er, squeamish are you?" my colleague asked with trepidation.

Now I understand why.

If, like me, you aren't into mega-permed, tattooed rockers in black leather, eye-liner and high heels (can you *feel* my derision there?) then you too will only know Motley Crue as the band that Tommy-Lee-who-married-Pamela-Anderson is in. This is their collaborative group biography, and then some. It's a roller coaster ride: covering their dysfunctional childhoods, crazy teenage years, and totally bonkers adult lives.

Hold on to your hats. And your trousers. And pants. Oh, and keep an eye on any booze or pharmaceuticals you've got lying around the place. And for God's sake, don't invite your sister and her friends around.

Hilarious. Entertaining. Offensive. Most definitely NOT for the squeamish.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Roll up, roll up... last chance to play your part in shaping the skills agenda for publishing

This post is lifted from the Skillset blog. But it's OK, 'cos I wrote it, so it's not plagiarising or anything...

You may have heard that Skillset is running a skills and training needs survey for people working in the creative media industries.

Common knowledge for many of you I know. What you might not realise is that this is the first time Publishing has been included in Skillset’s formal research programme.

As the Publishing Sector Manager (and being a bit of a swot) I’m keen we get a good response. So I’m asking a favour.

If you are employed or work as a freelancer in any publishing sector,* at any level, will you:
  1. complete the online survey yourself (if you haven’t already) and

  2. forward the link on to at least 5 of your publishing friends and colleagues to ask them (nicely) to do the same?

Aside from the warm glow you’ll get from satisfying my schoolgirl swottishness, all the information provided will help us to make sure publishing people can access the right training in the future.

It takes about 15 minutes to complete and runs to the end of Thursday so hurry and do it while you can! The link is here:

The legal bit: responses are anonymous and non-attributable, so conform to data protection legislation.

The technical bit: some people have had problems using Internet Explorer 6 so help can be found here:

Thanks a million. I owe you a drink. Or two. Depending on how many people you get to complete the survey.

(*books, business media, databases, directories, journals, magazines, news agencies, newspapers, in print, online, mobile… you get the picture)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A book a week in 2010: My Fathers' Daughter

My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Pool is a personal memoir of raw, emotional power.

Originally born in Eritrea, Hannah was placed in an orphanage after her mother died during her birth. She was adopted at six months old by David Pool, a British academic, and she eventually joined him in England where she grew up in Manchester.

It was when she received a letter from her brother in Eritrea, while still at university, that she finally discovered her birth father was alive and that she had a family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. But it was ten years before Hannah finally got a chance to meet a cousin who was living in London. That meeting proved to be the catalyst for arranging a visit to meet her Eritrean family.

Pool writes with searing honesty: about her conflicting sense of anger and guilt, towards both of her fathers; the duality of not fully belonging in either culture; the overwhelming sense of paralysis in the face of an emotional reunion; and with the bewildering sense of wanting to run away from what she has yearned for all her life.

This is powerful and honest. In turns emotional and thought-provoking.

I couldn't put it down.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire trailer

Couldn't resist posting it. Looks good, huh?

Source: Uploaded by simarchetto,

A book a week in 2010: The Girl Who Played With Fire

'Gym? The Girl Who Played with Fire? Both?'

A pretty innocuous Facebook post. Or so I thought. But no. It sparked a massive debate between friends about Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. I had no idea there was such divided opinion.

'Dull, no pacing, weird sexual stuff, badly written, badly translated, badly edited... Am I really the only one who thinks this?' said one friend. I just don't agree.

You may recall my earlier review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was ambivalent. I liked the atmosphere, but felt it took a while to build up the story and characters. Now, having read The Girl Who Played with Fire, I get the importance of the trilogy. And I could not put this book down.

The girl is restrained by leather straps on a bed. She's in a room. He visits her daily, trying to get a response. But she will not give him the satisfaction. This drives him mad. So each time he tightens the restraints.

The crusading business journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, has settled into running Millennium magazine with best friend Erika Berger and recently joined board member Harriet Vanger. The magazine has gone from strength to strength since the Wennerstrom affair: a massive expose of a business magnet in the magazine, also published in a best-selling book.

Their reputation attracts a talented journalist, Dag Svensson, and his girlfriend, the academic researcher Mia Johansson, who have an explosive new story they want Millennium to publish. The investigation into sex tafficking reaches into the very heart of the establishment.

Lisbeth Salandar was an investigative researcher who Blomkvist worked with closely on the Wennerstrom affair, but she suddenly broke off contact and disappeared about a year ago. Blomkvist knows that Salandar hates the establishment with a passion. But the brutal murder of three people, with only Salandar's prints linking the crimes, make those around him start to wonder just exactly how deep her hatred runs.

This is a gripping, taut thriller and a huge improvement on the first book, particularly as I was familiar with the characters. It's well written, compelling and cranks up the tension. There's a lot of bizarre sexual stuff in it, but it's central to the story and is balanced by plot, characters and dialogue.

Highly recommend, but you need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A book a week in 2010: Ten Steps to Happiness by Daisy Waugh

In a Victorian terrace, somewhere in South East London, our heroine soldiers on with Wolf Hall, the epic Booker Prize winning historical novel by Hilary Mantel.

And yet she yearns for something a little less challenging; for a book that whisks her mind away to a life of simple pleasures and away from the drudgery of literary fiction, her frantic social life and the high powered job in skills that she is SUPER at.

A life where successful career girl meets handsome boy; falls in love; gets married; and moves to new husband's crumbling old pile in the country, complete with grumpy father-in-law, dodgy old retainer, and an ensemble of characters straight out of OK! magazine.

To a life where she can create the most AMAZING retreat for tired, worn out stars, wannabes and minor royals. Where they, too, can shelter from the real world, taking in the faded grandeur of the terribly old farm and shambolic buildings. And they can laugh in the face of petty bureaucracy, strange locals and general bizarreness of country folk. Nothing that a FABULOUS contacts book and a bit of vim and vigour (plus a few Jo Malone scented candles) can't fix, eh?

She turns her attention back to the tome on her lap. Slowly, she reaches for a book, a colourful book that has appeared miraculously on the table before her. She thought she was being discreet, but little did she know that all her blog readers were watching. Watching, as she PICKED UP A CHICK LIT BOOK AND ACTUALLY READ IT!

Her blog readers sighed and thought to themselves "Jesus, I hope she finishes Wolf Hall soon."

"Me too." Said our heroine.

Monday, 2 August 2010

A book a week in 2010: All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

'Buy it, borrow it, steal it but just make sure you read it.'

That's what Scott Pack said. And he's so influential, they put it on the front of the book. You may know him as meandmybigmouth: blogger and tweeter extraordinaire.

Please don't tell him, but when I was browsing in Dulwich Books and saw his quote, that's what made me buy it.

So after that HUGE build up, what's it like?

Well, it's a quirky, sweet love story. Charming yet sparsely written. It has a light touch, yet feels like a deeply philosophical observation on human nature.

It tells the story of Tom, a normal person, who is married to The Perfectionist, a superhero. They should be settling down to a happy, married life, but The Perfectionist's ex-boyfriend Hypno arrives at the wedding with other ideas.

This is a cute book (hmm, cute, never used that word in a review before) that somehow manages to feel profound. Definitely worth a read.

Read a sample here and find out about Andrew Kaufman here.

Friday, 9 July 2010

A book a week in 2010: Fup by Jim Dodge

Jake Santees is 99 years old.

He likes to gamble.

A lot.

Jake brews his own whiskey, Ole' Death Whisper, from a secret recipe passed on by a dying Indian man.

He lives on his farm with grandson Tiny.

Tiny likes to build fences.

Fup is a duck, found by Tiny when a newly-hatched duckling, and saved by a drop of the whiskey.

Together they hunt for the wild pig Lockjaw that terrorises Tiny and his fences.

Not making sense? Don't worry. It will, kind of.

First published in 1983 this has quietly become a modern classic. This beautifully illustrated edition was published by Canongate in 2009.

Jim Dodge lives on an isolated ranch in California, west of Sacramento. His sparse, matter of fact prose is bizarre, surreal and in the spirit of Cormac McCarthy and the expanses of the mid west.

This is 'A Modern Fable' well worth the read. Not one for the kids though.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The hype around the Millenium series (named after Millenium magazine the main protagonist is editor of) has been extraordinary. It has it all. Critical acclaim for the bleak and tense prose; strange and compelling characters; a plot with more turns than a turkey twizzler; the tragic, sudden death of the author only months after he'd finished the final part of the trilogy; and the ensuing battle for his estate between his family and partner.

Then there's the film. Already released in 2009 in Swedish to commercial success (grossing $100 million worldwide according to Wikipedia), an English language production is rumoured to be in hand.

The crusading business journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is commissioned to write the history of the dysfunctional family of Henrik Vanger, head of a sprawling family business dynasty now on the wane.

Well, that's the cover story. In reality he's using his journalistic skills to investigate the murder of Henrik's niece many years ago; a mystery that Vanger has never been able to let go of. Mikael teams up with the strange, prickly and intriguing Lisbeth Salander, a private detective like no other, with her own dark, family secrets. Together they discover that the Vanger family are not all they seem, and there are many who would anything to cover it up.

If you liked the Swedish film Let the Right One In, there's a good chance you'll like this book. It's not perfect, but the slow build of tension and the level of detail in describing each scene produces a particular Scandianvian feel: hyper-realism, grim, depressing, whatever. I haven't seen the film or read the sequels, but on the basis of this, I'll get round to it.

Here's the trailer for the film.

And here's the trailer to Let the Right One In.
I'm spoiling you.
This. Is. Brilliant.
In fact, it's so good, it's taking over the end of an unrelated book review.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

A book a week in 2010: One Day by David Nicholls

Ah, the late 80s and early 90s. Days of vim and vigour. Of youth, fun and staying out past my bedtime. Oh the memories... *sighs*.

So, where was I?

Oh, that's right. One Day by David Nicholls. He of Starter for Ten fame. You know. The University-Challenge-in-the-80s story that was made into a film staring James McAvoy.

One Day charts the lives, loves and adventures of two friends from university: Emma and Dexter. Nicholls takes you back to visit them each year. Over a period of 20 years, we see them live their lives as friends, but always with the sense of 'what if...' between them.

Neither Emma or Dexter are perfect. Nicholls is a master of painting a warts-and-all picture of personality. He's also a master of recreating moments in time. My favourite scenes remind me of when I first moved to London in the early nineties and lived near Brixton.

I loved this book. If you're from this era, I have a feeling you will too. But others might not have quite so much fun. It could all be a little bit 'so what?'

And despite what I've suggested, it's not all rock and roll as there's a shock for you towards the end.

I gather Anne Hathaway has been cast in the movie adaptation, about to start filming. I'm not sure I approve, but let's give her a chance. Hope there aren't any Rene Zellweger Bridget Jones' style accents going on.

Monday, 14 June 2010

A book a week in 2010: Dark Fire by C J Sansom

My friend @danether originally recommended C J Sansom to me. Not usually a fan of historical or crime fiction, I was a bit sniffy, but he was right to suggest I try.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer. One time favourite of Thomas Cromwell, he finds himself embroiled in yet another mystery, surrounding the whereabouts of a mystical substance, Dark Fire, that is rumoured to be a terrible weapon, and one that Henry VIII is determined to own.

He finds his fate inextricably linked to Cromwell as the investigation criss-crosses London in a race against time: there are others that want to possess the dark fire and they will do anything - and kill anyone - to find it.

Sansom artfully recreates the sounds, smells and sights of sixteenth century London, skilfully weaving historical details around strong characterisations of historical and fictional people.

This is one of a series of five Shardlake mysteries. Recommended.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A book a week in 2010: Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

Cityboy is machismo on a grand scale. It stars epic amounts of alcohol and drug consumption, completely unfettered greed, selling your soul and complete and utter burnout. Articulated by an insider who got out.

Geraint Anderson worked in the City for 12 years. He got out before he burned out. Although, by his own admission, he turned into a monster and subsequently "needed to engage in 12 years' of repentance."

The writing is dodgy. Anderson chronicles everything that is wrong with the City in his own unique colloquial city-speak. This book is based on the column he wrote for the now defunct thelondonpaper.

Verdict: read this and weep. Literary fiction it ain't. Riveting, horrifying, compelling it is. If nothing changes from this account, we are doomed to bail out the excesses of the industry for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A book a week in 2010: 'Money Magic' by Alvin Hall

Do you know, I've never read a Quick Read? That's a bit of a poor show for someone who's worked in the book industry for 17 odd years (and yes, I am older than I look).

So I've tried to rectify this with the latest in the 'book a week in 2010' series.

Money Magic is one of this year's batch of Quick Reads: short books by top authors designed to encourage reading across a wide range of people.

It's written by Alvin Hall, one of television's higher profile money experts. A staple of breakfast TV and early evening magazine show sofas.

It distills the essence of what he does: simple, commonsense advice on how to manage your money. Most people will have been at a point when they have built up debt across credit cards, overdrafts and loans. Alvin gives you a gentle kick up the backside by suggesting you come to terms with your spending habits, acknowledge the points at which you succumb to temptation and get that bit of plastic out, and put in place some realistic plans to help prevent those situations arising.

It's not rocket science, but it gave me pause for thought as to bad habits I get into and how I ignore them on a daily basis. There is a risk it could come across as preaching, but Alvin manages to (just) avoid this as he speaks from personal experience, having gone through - and survived - extreme levels of debt himself.

All in all, a very timely and accessible Quick Read. I really hope this reaches a wide market. There's plenty of people who could do with this book. Priced at £1.99 , there's no excuse; go get your copy now.

You can listen to a podcast of Alvin Hall discussing Money Magic on the Quick Reads website.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

A book a week in 2010: Up in the Air - Walter Kirn

George Clooney.

That got your attention.

Well he liked this book. He played the main character, Ryan Bingham, in the movie adaptation released in 2009.

I haven't seen the film, but thought the book would be worth reading as the movie had excellent reviews. Sadly, it wasn't. If you like middle-aged male existential angst then this is the book for you. It is not, however, for me.

Bingham is on a mission. To achieve the tantalising-close one million airmiles. How has he got to this amazing milestone? By flying around America as a gun-for-hire consultant to 'advise' clients (i.e. those being fired) about the life choices they have ahead of them.

But Bingham has lost himself on the way. He's sold his apartment. Aside from the identical hotel rooms he stays in, he has no real place called home. It takes a chance encounter with a fellow traveller and a visit from his sister to make him pause and wonder what it's all about.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. It's not all bad. There is real insight into the meaning of modern life early on. Reality begins to blur as you get a sense of being permanently in transit. It's just that the second half of the book hurtles into too much introspection for my taste, and becomes irritating. Frankly, it was a struggle just to finish.

I really wanted to like it, but Walter lost me, then never really got me back. Sorry George...

Up in the Air by Walter Kim
Published by John Murray, January 2010

Oh go on, Clooney fans, this one's for you....

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A book a week in 2010: Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

First up, my thanks to @caroleagent for suggesting this book. So when a major literary agent recommends a book, I take note. It's gotta be worth a punt, hasn't it?

Saving Caravaggio is an Italian mob/art/crime thriller. But don't let that put you off. Daniel Wright trained as an art historian. Except he wasn't really good enough to carry on and become a world leading art expert. More's the pity. Because now he is an art detective. One of the best. But still only a policeman.

He investigates international art frauds and travels across continents, using his academic background to add credibility to any cover story as he tries to secure stolen artworks.

But there is a complication. He has heard that his favourite artist Caravaggio's long-rumoured-to-be-lost masterpiece 'Nativity' isn't lost after all. A mafioso contact he developed in southern Italy, claimed the painting exists and may be available to the highest bidder. The quest for the Nativity becomes Wright's obsession, but in the process he risks losing contact with all that he holds dear. Saving Caravaggio takes us through the Italian countryside - from the urbane and cultured Florence to the closed society of Calabria - on an increasingly desperate quest to find the Nativity.

I loved the pace of this book. Griffiths builds up a wonderful picture of the different sides to Italian life. From the glamorous and chic city lives of the Uffizi's own Caravaggio expert, the beautiful Francesca Natali, and her powerful art collector and patron Storaro, to the cast of menacing and sometimes hapless characters in Calabria.

Now I'm not suggesting this is all there is to Italian society, but there is a suitably claustrophic atmosphere, where you actually BELIEVE that this is it, such is the focus of his prose and characterisation. The tension winds up palpably as the story progresses and the main characters learn more about themselves and each other.

If you prefer your crime thrillers to avoid any naval gazing and restraint, then this probably isn't for you. If you like a bit of culture, psychological introspection and reflection, then you should consider Saving Caravaggio for your next bedtime or beach read.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A book a week in 2010: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a cultural theorist (and New Yorker journalist). His work is well known: The Tipping Point, Blink, this book - Outliers - and most recently What the Dog Saw. He has an easy way of cutting across complex cultural phenomenons, and kind of making sense of them.

I don't know about you, but I really like to understand who does what and why. It helps me deal with peoples' behaviour. And stops me taking it personally. So Malcolm is someone I have time for.

Outliers is his way of explaining why certain people seem to do better than others. Whether they are ice hockey players in Canada. Or Italian immigrants in the United States. Or really clever people that do well on Who Wants to be a Millionaire despite not having the 'right' background. Or how who you are and where you come from can influence a plane crash.

If you're like me, as with all Gladwell's books, you'll find yourself umming and aahing in recognition and empathy. He's always worth reading to get another take on the world. Bring on The Dog.

[Footnote: I was born in January. According to Gladwell, that should stand me in good stead.]
[Another footnote: I read this on my Kindle. And really enjoyed the experience of looking smart *and* geeky on the tube.]

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A book a week in 2010: Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson

I really like cheese. We have a fridge full at the moment. Stilton, brie, cheddar, cream cheese and parmigiana.

Don't you dare touch it though. It's all for me. And I'm staying here until it's gone.

I'm not sure what I'll do after that. Perhaps I should stay put? Wait for someone else to fill my fridge with cheese? There's a risk I may lose a bit of weight. Perhaps make myself a bit ill. I suppose I could always have a wander round to see if there's any more cheese lying around.

If only I'd thought about looking for more when it started to run out. If only I'd got myself down to the local farmer's market to stock up. If only...

This is a parable. It involves people, mice and cheese. It's a tale of four kinds of people.

1. Those that anticipate change.
2. Those who spring into action when they realise there is change.
3. Those that are threatened by change as they fear it will be for the worse.
4. Those who eventually adapt and see how change could be for the better.

I'd like to think I'm a mix of 1 and 2. But in the real world, I'm probably more of a 4. But who says I won't be able to change my perspective?

This would have been revolutionary when it was first published in 1998. It's rumoured to have sold over 24 million copies worldwide and is still stocked in quantity in Foyles St Pancras (as of this afternoon).

The concept of embracing change has never been more pertinent for publishing. What Dr Johnson also recognises is the need to embrace all four perspectives so you can work through change effectively.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

This book is a cheat. Bought hastily from Stanfords in Covent Garden because it was short. 140 pages short to be exact. I needed to cram in two books in two days because I'd fallen behind with one a week. I blame The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

What I hadn't anticipated is what a poignant, moving and lyrical book this is.

Jean-Dominique Bauby is the successful Editor of French Elle magazine. He lives an exciting and glamorous life in Paris. But on a visit to see his children, he is taken ill with a massive stroke.

When he awakes, he is in the Naval Hospital in Berck-sur-Mer, on the North coast of France near Calais. He discovers he is suffering from 'Locked-In Syndrome', almost total paralysis, with only the use of one eye to communicate with the world. The book - dictated through blinking out the letters to his editor Claude Mendibil - charts his inner battle to comes to terms with all that he has lost and his sensory escape into memory.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is poetic, intensely moving, and the best cheat I've ever made.

The artist Julian Schnabel won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival with his interpretation of the book. I plan to watch it as soon as I can. Here's the trailer in the meantime.

The Daily Mail Song

This. Is. Wonderful.

Now go and follow the Dan and Dan blog. Immediately.

Friday, 12 March 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Wisdom of the Crowds

"Dazzling... the most brilliant book on business, society and everyday life that I've read in years" says Malcolm Gladwell, quoted on the front cover of The Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki.

That's a bold quote for the publishers to pop on the front cover.

Surowiecki is a business writer for the New Yorker. This is obviously a subject on which he's pondered for years. It's essentially a beefed up version of the adage "two heads are better than one". Except he means lots of heads. Not just two.

He's spent a lot of time thinking about how large groups of seemingly non-specialist groups of people can end up making far better decisions, than a smaller bunch of so-called "experts". You just have to allow the crowd to figure it out, and they usually do, really well.

We are given examples drawn from history, psychology and academic research to back up his point. He looks at group dynamics believing that the larger the group, the more likely the optimum level for people to make their own rational decisions based on their experience and knowledge will be reached. These, Surowiecki argues, are collectively the right ones. His analysis of the balance of decision making in stock markets makes particularly interesting reading in light of recent economic performance (this book was first published in 2004).

This isn't as coherent and straight-forward an argument as you might get in one of Gladwell's books. But Surowiecki has more to prove. So he brings in a more diverse range of studies to back up his argument, often based on rigorous research for added credibility.

It made me rethink how I make my best decisions: at work and at home. Recommended.